Already “of” the community

We’ve all seen many participation typologies over the years. But with the one below, which I created when examining local partners’ final reports in 2009, I was trying to describe some simple categories of approaches to working with communities that local non-governmental organizations utilize. It was also meant to capture that fine line that can exist between a community-based organization (CBO) and a community, especially within the most nascent groups, whose immediate and localized responses to vulnerability are based on collective leadership.

Low-wealth individuals and communities systemically mobilize resources (though often labeled “informally”) through a system of self-help and mutual assistance, which Wilkinson-Maposa and Fowler (2009) have coined as “horizontal philanthropy” or “philanthropy of community”. It is very important for development practitioners to recognize that emerging CBOs can be born of this system, rather than just from external interventions, and to ensure that our support builds upon these systems, rather than bypassing or even thwarting them.

But this is no easy task. As I advocate for donors and international NGOs to deepen their understanding of organizational development within the context of grassroots organizations, perhaps these categories of approaches to working communities could be useful, especially to supply the nuance to “local” called for recently over at Tales from the Hood. Rather than differentiating local groups based on their size or reach, donors must also, and perhaps more importantly, determine how local groups go about creating and maintaining relationships with those they serve. I believe that setting up mechanisms to make this a more central part of our dialogue with local organizations is a key aspect of enhancing development partnerships.

Where do your local partners operate on this continuum? (Click here to view the full graphic if on’s main page.) Do they demonstrate the centrality of ownership and empowerment within their approach, their planning and problem-solving processes? Are they focused on responding to immediate needs and service delivery, or are they mobilizing and expressing the compassion, free will, and voice of their constituents? And perhaps more importantly, how can you tell? (For some thoughts on this, see my previous post, Spotting Community Ownership.)

As donors or as development practitioners, we have a choice in terms of where we will put our resources–our time, our energy, and our will. CBOs are not created equal, and what’s more, nor are all communities created equal. Yet I believe that one of our main goals is to uphold and/or transform local partner organizations’ relationship to their constituency, to be more empowering and more responsive to communities’ expressed needs and priorities.

So what do you think? Do you recognize these categories? What does “already ‘of’ the community” mean to you? And where on the continuum will you place your investments?


Related Posts

Do CBOs have an image problem?

The Marginalization of CBOs by Development Actors: A Perspective from Zimbabwe

Would YOU fund this organization?

Trocaire: 10 things INGOs need to do

The wisdom of dlalanathi: Reflections on organizational growth


  1. Corinne McCrum

    I would be really interested to hear from community based organisations what participation methods have worked for their organisation. I attended a workshop yesterday focussing on south-south learning, held at Feed the Minds (a small UK NGO supporting education projects in the developing world). A draft framework is going to be developed from the really valuable discussions.

  2. Dear Jennifer,
    Thank you for the latest post. As the initiator of a locally evolved tiny farmers’ research institute at the very bottom layer of a developing country like Bangladesh, It always is the struggle of keeping our initiative on track of locality development with out distortion from our views and ethical guidelines. Funding always there is the greatest challenge. Traditional funding mechanism doesn’t permit a local organisation to hold up it’s originality, rather than “Fit yourself into the project”. From our 10 years of struggle, we have seen that our local community has a development philosophy itself. That is burried into the deeper of the heart. But due to development interventions (from GO & NGO), it is loosing the self constructed, tested and sustainable development philosophy. Thus the development initiatives are creating further complex problems instead of solving a development related problem. People are forced to think, behave as the project directs.
    My experiential struggle & knowledge directs that there must be some alternative funding mechanism, that will support the small organisations to work on their own philosophy, ethics and strategy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *